Long Reads

The Handmaid’s Tale recap: why it’s Emily, not Serena Joy, who poses the real threat

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Kayleigh Dray
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Alexis Bledel as Emily, The Handmaid's Tale, Season 2

Emily has nothing left to lose in The Handmaid’s Tale – and that makes her incredibly dangerous.

Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode seven of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).

The seventh episode of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale – simply titled After – literally deals with the aftermath of the bomb, which was set off by Ofglen 2 (Tattiawna Jones) in a shock suicide attack on the Red Centre.

In a chilling opening, we see the Handmaids dressed in never-before-seen attire: black capes, thick red veils over their faces – a stark contrast against the white snow. It quickly becomes apparent that they are attending the mass funeral of the Handmaids killed in the explosion. Because, yes, Ofglen 2’s attack did not just impact the commanders in charge of Gilead’s theocratic regime: it also brought about the deaths of many of her friends.

“I heard 26 commanders, 31 of us,” notes one Handmaid.

In a funeral service led by an emotional Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), the Handmaids robotically echo Bible passages when ordered, clearly still numb with shock. To give Lydia credit, she does list off the women who have been killed – and makes it clear that she will mourn each passing. However, she refers to them by their patriarchal Gileadean titles only: their real names are masked in anonymity, their human lives forgotten, their graves essentially unmarked. Because, in this world, Handmaids are nothing but government assets which can easily be replaced.

This point is viciously underlined when several Unwomen, including Madeline Brewer’s Janine and Alexis Bledel’s Emily, are rounded up with cattle prods and forced into vans bound for their old neighbourhoods – where there’s now a Handmaid shortage.

Naturally, the episode is bleak. Abundantly bleak. We learn of Moira (Samira Wiley)’s surrogate pregnancy in the time before. We see Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and June forced to work together in a bid to stop Commander Cushing (Greg Bryk), when his line of questioning casts a shadow over the Waterford house. And we are left to wonder whether Serena will remember to thank her Handmaid – or seek to silence her – after their alliance has run its due course.

Towards the end of the episode, though, we are offered up a seemingly hopeful scene in the supermarket, where June finally reveals her real name to Emily – her former friend and shopping partner. Inspired by her bravery, her fellow Handmaids, risking terrible retribution, quietly whisper their own names to each other as emotional strings swell on the soundtrack.

And yet… well, we have good reason to fear Emily’s homecoming.

Earlier in the series, flashbacks revealed that, in the time before Gilead, Emily was a confident and empowered biology professor – one of the youngest and brightest in her field. As Serena Joy’s rhetoric reached fever-pitch in America, though, Emily saw her livelihood – and her personal life – come under threat. So, after learning that her colleague and friend (played by John Carroll Lynch) had been hanged for being gay, Emily attempted to flee the country with her wife, Sylvia (Clea DuVall) and their young son.

They made it as far as the airport. There, stony-faced I.C.E agents informed the couple that their marriage was no longer recognised under the new law.

“Which law?” asked Emily.

The law,” they replied.

As such, Sylvia and her son were able to move onto Canada, but Emily was forced to stay behind in a country that no longer recognised her human rights. She became a Handmaid, forced into a life of sexual servitude and surrogacy. Eventually, she was branded a ‘gender traitor’ – and, in a cruel bid to “curb her of her impulses”, Aunt Lydia oversaw the mutilation of her genitals in government-ordered surgery.

For a while, it seemed as if Emily’s rebellious spirit had been destroyed: she was assigned to a new household, given a new name, and was forced to censor herself on a daily basis. However, she later decided to sacrifice herself in a last, desperate stand against the Gileadean regime: she stole a car, she used it to run over and kill a Guardian and wound up in the Colonies as a result.

When we joined her in those toxic wastelands for the first time, we assumed that Emily – a self-appointed doctor, administering to the needs of the dying – had found solace in helping others. It wasn’t long, though, before we learned that this was as far from the truth as possible: Emily befriended Mrs O’Conner, a commander’s wife who had been sent to the Colonies, and offered her medication to stave off the effects of the radiation.

This ‘medication’, though, soon transpired to be poison – and Emily stood over Marisa Tomei’s terrified character as she slowly expired on the bathroom floor, all of her previous softness and maternal instincts stripped away.

“Emily has been hardened by all that she’s been through,” said executive producer Warren Littlefield at the time, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

“She offers no forgiveness.”

Bledel added: “She’s a victim of so many traumatic injustices. She’s been harmed, attacked and abused. She knows it’s wrong. She has a strong sense of justice. She knows what’s right – and so she doles out justice herself.”

So, yes, Emily may have been reunited with June – but she has been plunged straight back into the heart of the regime which took away everything she loved, attempted to make her smaller than she is, and hardened her heart. We know she has killed at least two people in cold blood in order to make a point. We know that she was a MayDay agent before she was shipped off to the Colonies. And we know that, despite the fact the resistance organisation has fallen quiet, MayDay will be the focal point of this season – albeit not for the reasons we’d hoped.

“Mayday is not the handmaid rescue organisation – it’s the anti-Gilead organisation,” director Bruce Miller told the New York Times. “If I was going to try to hurt Gilead, the first thing 
I might do is kill all the Handmaids. You’re trying to weaken the state.”

Littlefield added: “When you have this kind of world with these kinds of rules, there will be an uprising… and the consequences will be devastating for both sides.”

It is no overstatement to say that something deep inside of Emily has snapped… irreparably. That much was made clear when she told Janine that she and their fellow Unwomen were “just cows being worked to death”.

“We come here, we work, and we die,” she spat furiously.

Essentially, Emily sees herself, in many ways, as Gilead sees her: a valuable resource. And Ofglen 2’s suicide bombing has shown her just how easy it is to weaken the state: the deaths of 31 Handmaids saw Gilead forced to go back on its old laws and retrieve the fertile Unwomen from the Colonies. Imagine what the deaths of 50 Handmaids would do? 100? 150? Every single Handmaid in the district?

Exactly. Emily is a woman with nothing left to lose. And, as Ofglen 2’s demise has shown us, a woman with nothing left to lose is a very dangerous woman.

Throw in the fact that she’s handy with a vial of poison, and you have a very dark future ahead indeed.

Next episode: Women’s Work

Previous episode: First Blood

Image: Channel 4 / Hulu